Portland International Airport can be crowded on a weekend.
But not like it was last weekend.
Downtown Portland can be crowded on an afternoon.
But for day after day in the past two weeks, led by a women’s march that brought at least 70,000 people and almost as many signs to Waterfront Park, downtown has been surging with thousands of vibrantly vocal demonstrators, determined to defend what Oregon considers human rights. It turns out that a particular set of beliefs – not free-range organic chicken with hand-grown arugula – is at the core of Portlandia.
Not, of course, that we were alone. All across the country – from half a million people in Washington, D.C., to several dozen frigid but firm figures in Fairbanks, Alaska – crowds showed up in outsized clusters in support of the America that existed on January 19.
The vast gatherings raised an urgent, inescapable question:
“Just because you’ve succeeded in bringing a large number of people together doesn’t mean you can bring about some lasting change,” said Ronnie Herndon after the first mass demonstrations last month. “The last thing people need, when you organize to change the status quo, is failure.”
For more than 20 years, Herndon was co-chair of the Black United Front in Portland, launching enough marches, demonstrations and boycotts to write an epic saga in picket signs. Over that time, those efforts changed the school district’s racial policies, including driving the creation of a middle school in Portland’s African American neighborhood; forced the closing of Portland’s South African consulate; and produced several job opportunity spaces in the neighborhood, including a Nike outlet store. The experience distilled some principles for the current outburst of shoe-leather dissent.
“If the object was to show that thousands of people disagree with the policy, that was done,” Herndon says about recent demonstrations. “If (the organizers) are smart enough to do what they did, they’re smart enough to take the next step.”
Actually, as Herndon sees it, effective protesting involves several next steps.
First, do your research and plan and organize very carefully. “It’s not enough just to be outraged. Study what came before you, what was successful and what wasn’t,” says Herndon. “I don’t see people spending enough time doing the research on what has been successful.”
That starts with controlling your actions
“I really don’t understand this idea of destroying public property. You lose the public,” he points out. “The message is vandalism, not change.”
That was never, Herndon notes, the strategy of the civil rights movement.
Another observer, Tom Nichols, author of “The Death of Expertise,” tweeted last week, “Protest prioritizes emotion over effectiveness unless *highly* disciplined and targeted. Otherwise, it can play into opponent narrative.”
And without discipline, some activities can look less like protest than like individual entertainment.
That means not picking fights. “We were in contact with law enforcement before, during and after our demonstrations, even when we were demonstrating in front of precincts against police abuses.”
Then you need actual goals that could measure success, to keep your momentum going, especially if you’re looking at a long-term effort – say, to pick a term at random, four years. “How are you going to sustain it? If you’re not careful, you’ll wear people out,” Herndon warns. “What does victory look like?”
Because it’s probably not going to look like Donald Trump suddenly realizing the error of his ways.
And especially if you’re organizing for the long haul, you need to find allies and build coalitions.
“You’re not going to want to coalesce with everybody. There should be some common agreement,” says Herndon. But if a group doesn’t agree, “There may be an issue in the future where they can be with you.
“Don’t disparage other organizations. You want to keep at a minimum the people who oppose you.”\
Maintaining communications can have other benefits. Years after Herndon led demonstrations against Nike, the company is the largest private supporter of the group he directed, the National Head Start Association.
Without planning and direction, even the largest protests can wilt without impact. Herndon still remembers the Million Man March, which in 1995 brought at least half a million African American men to Washington – a significant percentage, he notes, of the available black adult males in the country. But with a mixed message from a variety of speakers and sponsors, and with no follow-up plans, the massive turnout turned into a media blip.
A massive amount of energy has been generated in opposition to Donald Trump, and it looks like he can be relied upon to generate more on a regular basis.
Based on Herndon’s experience, using that energy is a matter of building coalitions – of the women’s rights folks linking with the immigrant rights folks, of the people marching through the streets supporting the lawyers marching into court, of the people writing signs also writing to public officials. There are immediate, achievable goals to set, and being careful to create no more opponents than you already have.
And there is time to figure out how to focus that energy effectively.
At least four years.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Or3gonian, 2/5/17.